Infertility Awareness Week

I’ve been silent here on my blog for awhile. I’m going to blame most of it on our transition to Fayetteville and to new jobs. It hasn’t been crazy or stressful, but life has felt fairly full, and I don’t think I have done a good job of creating space to reflect and process.

It’s Infertility Awareness Week, and in the past I would have been jumping at the chance to write some piece related to our (ongoing) journey through infertility. In the past three years, it’s been a theme throughout my writing, whether in specifics or as the lens through which I am learning other things like joy in waiting and the love displayed in disappointment.

And yet, this week, I have felt unsure and unworthy to say anything.

To be honest, we are in a very healthy, happy place. We are really enjoying this season of life: living in a one bedroom apartment (while most of our belongings are in a storage unit) – downtown (which means we can walk to restaurants, coffee shops, and the farmer’s market, not to mention being able to walk to campus for my job each day) – making new friends and reuniting with old ones.

I have found myself thankful for infertility over the past few months, not necessarily for any super spiritual reason, but simply because of my ability to invest in my job and the chance for us to downsize and live downtown for a bit. We are having fun right now!

So since I am not currently experiencing grief over our inability to conceive thus far, I feel a little disqualified from bringing attention to our journey. I don’t want it to define us, and I don’t want it to be the only need through which I experience a dependency on God.

But, I will say, while it lies dormant in the back of my mind, it’s still there. There are still moments of envy when I see other moms with newborns in their slings or wraps. There are twinges of sadness with pregnancy announcements. There are questions of what our future will be like and if there is anything we should be doing right now.

But they are not all-consuming, as they have been during other times throughout the past three years.

I want to bring attention to Infertility Awareness Week. I want to join arms with my sisters in recognizing the validity of grief and pain, whether or not it’s the loss of something tangible. I want to be a resource, an encouragement, a friend to others who are in similar places or are facing similar medical concerns. I still keep a list of women I am praying for, and that list is close to me this week and as we approach Mother’s Day. I want to encourage other women that, even if it gets easier to accept, that doesn’t invalidate moments of pain, and it doesn’t mean that the desire no longer exists. I am thankful that it has gotten easier for us, and I see that as a direct result of the prayers people have prayed for us.

And I want to express gratitude for these prayers that I know we have been covered in, praising the God who has grown contentment deep inside me, even without growing a baby in my womb.

though a desert should surround me

It’s been three years since we made the decision to “just see what happened” in terms of starting a family. Many other things have also happened in our life during those three years–job promotions, house purchases, career changes, and a move, to name a few–but these three years have been most heavily saturated by our journey through infertility, a journey perhaps more obsessive in the beginning and now a more silent (yet constant) presence as time in the wilderness lengthens.

One of the hardest parts has been that there is always something else–always another test, always another procedure, always another option to consider. Then after you do some sort of test, there’s the wait for results, then the potential second test to confirm the first test, then the attempt of trying some sort of medicine, then scheduling a third test, and on and on. And once there are a few potential answers, there are then a plethora of opinions when it comes to natural remedies or supplements or prescriptions or procedures for more next steps.

Y’all, this could go on for years, and for many people it does. I think this is one of the reasons that couples are more reluctant to talk about it. Either because there’s always the hope of more information in a couple of months or the potential for it to change with this one procedure, so they don’t want to talk about it just yet; or they have talked about it and endured this continuous testing cycle and still don’t have a conclusion so they begin to feel like a broken record among their friends. There might be something new to report, but really there’s nothing new to report, because they still aren’t pregnant, so why bring it up?

I really don’t want “infertility” to define my life, but sometimes it’s hard to get away from.

There are many other areas of waiting or grief I am sure are similar–unwanted realities that feel so monumental you don’t know how to stop defining your life by them: The single adult who wants to be married but whose last relationship was so long ago that it doesn’t seem to “count” and who doesn’t even know how to hope. The continual burden of job-searching (combined either with unemployment or unhappiness in a present job) and the feeling of being stuck but unable to control your own motion. The grief in the loss of a loved one and uncertainty of how to manage life without that person, or how to process the loss of a child you never got to hold in your arms.

Even in seemingly-less monumental pain, we can find ourselves creating an identity pattern in our lives that has larger effects on how we view the world: the loneliness in a lack of friendships, or the regret of a wrong decision that you can’t let go of, or the comparison of your skills to everyone around you.

We allow our pain and disappointments to color the lenses through which we view the world. We label ourselves as “inferior” or “to be pitied.” We see these things as an injury that holds us back or a deformity we must learn to live with, and we allow them to taint our perspective (especially related to God).

But if I were to pinpoint one of the major things that I have learned as I have walked through these past few years, it would be the ways I have learned to find joy because of my pain, a perspective of gratitude for this season even though it’s not what I would have chosen. While there have been months where I certainly was not grateful, there have also been months I have considered it a privilege to be entrusted with such circumstances as I reflect on the intimacy I have gained with the Lord and the story I have been given to relate with and encourage others as they walk through their own pain (whether infertility or otherwise).

We are molded by our circumstances but also by our experience of God in those circumstances–for better or for worse. And much of that is our choice, how we will respond to our pain. Especially whether we will cling to the Lord or bitterly reject him for allowing this in our life.

As I encounter God in the wilderness, my perspective changes, impacting the way I will walk in the future.

I recently stumbled across the delightful book Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster (1912), and I couldn’t put it down! It’s a story about an orphan girl whose college education is funded by a mysterious benefactor, to whom she writes letters to report on her college experience. Judy has only seen his back and his distorted shadow, which gave the appearance of long skinny legs and arms, hence her nickname for this guardian. Throughout the book, Judy is wrestling with her upbringing at the orphan asylum as compared to all of the other girls in their traditional homes with loving families. It isn’t until the end of the book–the end of her four years at college­–that she comes to appreciate her own story, even with the sadness of her circumstances:

It gives me a sort of vantage point from which to stand aside and look at life. Emerging full grown, I get a perspective on the world, that other people who have been brought up in the thick of things entirely lack. I know lots of girls (Julia, for instance) who never know that they are happy. They are so accustomed to the feeling that their senses are deadened to it; but as for me—I am perfectly sure every moment of my life that I am happy. And I’m going to keep on being, no matter what unpleasant things turn up. I’m going to regard them (even toothaches) as interesting experiences, and be glad to know what they feel like. ‘Whatever sky’s above me, I’ve a heart for any fate.’

I feel a lot like Judy Abbott. It’s taken me time to appreciate the vantage point I have been given. I may not be “perfectly sure” that I can always be happy, but I do feel confident I have the understanding that contentment–and the happiness we experience as a result–is not based on my circumstances or my possessions. Rather, like Paul says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content… I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). My broken, selfish nature may at times keep me from finding strength in Christ, instead attempting to control or perform or succeed to gain what I want. But when I again (and again) lay my own plans down in surrender, I accept his will and find contentment in his purposes.

Not that any of this negates the reality of pain. Even my new friend Judy says that unpleasant things may turn up. But in the understanding of God’s love for us and thus his goodness being played out in our lives, we can face the unexpected and unwanted with a confidence that there’s something sweet to be gained. No longer must our pain define us negatively, but rather we can find the “vantage point” that it will give us going forward, confident that there is goodness below the surface.

At the end of the excerpt, Judy is quoting from Lord Byron’s poem “To Thomas Moore” when she writes, “Whatever sky’s above me, I’ve a heart for any fate.” The stanza following these two lines reads:

Though the ocean roar around me,
Yet it still shall bear me on;
Though a desert should surround me,
It hath springs that may be won.

Byron’s words remind me of what Charles Spurgeon so eloquently wrote: “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”

The springs God has shown me in the desert of the last three years have held more refreshing water than any I might experience from a dependable faucet. So while the story of infertility will certainly continue to hold weight in my life, my hope is that my attitude toward my reality is shaped by the vantage point I am climbing toward as I more clearly see God’s presence in the story.

rejoicing while we wait

I didn’t know it was possible to experience such sweetness in the middle of the story, in the places without resolution or certainty. Yet the Christmas season seems to be the perfect place to wrestle with and settle into contentment in the tension.

In high school, I went on a mission trip to the Czech Republic with my youth group. I loved building relationships with friends from a different culture, and we would often talk about the ways we did things in America vs. Europe. A Czech student told me that one thing he had observed about Americans was how we always wanted happy endings. He referenced our Disney movies and talked about how the traditional fairy tales often had different endings, or at least went about in other ways to reach their conclusion.

His example was the ending of The Little Mermaid, as in the traditional story the Prince marries someone else (not Ursula in disguise–that plot twist was created by Disney) and Ariel becomes a spirit in the sky.

In college, as I was doing research for a lit analysis, I discovered that in the Grimm Brothers’ story of Cinderella, one of the stepsisters cuts off her big toe and the other cuts off part of her heel so that the slipper fits, and the trail of blood is what gives both of them away.

Neither of those examples made the Disney cut. And for good reason–children wouldn’t like it. Honestly, I wouldn’t like it. We typically want to see stories wrap up the way we expect, the way we want our own lives to settle up. There’s a happily-ever-after bow that we expect to be tied onto the end of our stories, and until that bow is there, we find ourselves feeling as if something is not right.

In one sense, this longing can remind us that the story is not over. But in another way, it can keep us from appreciating where we are at right now, as if we can’t be okay in the middle of the story if we don’t know the ending (or if the ending doesn’t look to be happy).

I notice this as people talk to us about our infertility. I am so grateful to have friends who are still praying for us to conceive and become parents. That is still the desire of our hearts. But that can sometimes feel like the only option, the thing we are waiting for in order to be happy, and before that happens, we have to be doing everything we can to get that happy ending.

When we are in a place of contentment despite this unfulfilled desire, I feel I have to defend why we aren’t continuing to take steps to try new things. Why we aren’t moving forward with procedures that can attempt to overcome the obstacles in our bodies. Why we aren’t ready to pursue adoption.

Our friends want that happy ending for us. I want that. But I am learning that it’s not as much about happy endings as it is being present in the story. As Americans–and especially as American Christians–we aren’t always good at this. It’s as if our faith adds a new dimension onto this perceived need to be happy, to be able to say “God is good!” no matter what. And he is. But in the familiarity of this, or in using it as a band-aid to hide our disappointment, we can sometimes miss the beauty of the tension found in our longing.

The traditional Christmas hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” captures this tension in a sad yet lovely way.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

This hymn is a realistic reminder that we are caught in a not-yet-fulfilled desire for Messiah’s return, just as the Jews in the Old Testament were waiting for the first appearance of the Messiah. This is what Advent is all about, a recognition of our wait and his promised coming.

And yet, in the middle of the wait, before the promise is fulfilled, the command from these lyrics is to rejoice because he is coming. There is hope in the wait, and the ability to rejoice while we the wait is prompted by a recognition of what’s lacking tied to the hope of its fulfillment.

It’s not an ignorance of what’s lacking, or even a forced decision that the lack really doesn’t matter that much so it shouldn’t keep us from rejoicing–both of which are temptations I have felt to help me cope in my own waiting seasons in life.

Instead, we acknowledge our need for Christ and rejoice as we wait for him because it has been promised that he is coming again. And I am experiencing God’s presence in the wait as I ask for even more of it. That’s what I find myself praying as I sing this hymn–“O come, God with us, and be with me as I wait for you.”

All of our lives we will live in some sort of unresolved tension. Happily ever after won’t fully come until Christ’s return. But that doesn’t mean that the rejoicing is on hold–in fact, that anticipation can make rejoicing now even sweeter.

I don’t know what your lack is right now. I don’t know what you find yourself waiting for or longing for. But I do know that all of our desires are met in Him (Psalm 10:17, Psalm 145:16, Isaiah 58:11), and in the middle of the wait, there is joy to be found because God is here and he is coming again.

“Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 27:14)

understanding the peace that passes understanding

What does the word “peace” bring to mind when you hear it?

I picture a perfect fall day, leaves at the height of their brilliance and strewn across the walking path as I sit on a bench next to a creek, away from my phone and my to-do lists and the dog hair that always seems to pile up in the corners of my kitchen.

Maybe for you it’s a different place, a beach or a spa or a snow day.

Or maybe it’s less of a place and more of a season of life, having everything “figured out” and no problems to solve. One common association of this word (especially among mothers of young children) is a desire for “peace and quiet.”

But often, peace is not accompanied by the quiet. In fact, peace is most clearly found when everything around it is chaos and confusion and clutter.

I once read (I wish I could remember where) a description of a painting that displayed a great storm rolling in above a waterfall. You could imagine the crashing of the water and the shudder of the thunder, lightning flashing to illuminate the woods surrounding the river banks. In one corner of the painting, a small nest was tucked away among some limbs, and a bird was featured, fast asleep. The illustrator had titled the work, “Peace.”

So often, I find myself praying for peace, and what I am actually praying for is an ease in my circumstances. I am asking for God to make clear everything around that is confusing. I am asking for things to slow down, to be happier – to be, honestly, what I want them to be. I want resolution, and I typically think that peace is found within that resolution.

However, right now, I am learning to see my life as “at peace”–even though many of my struggles and prayers are yet unresolved. Over the past four or five months, I have discovered that the things that once felt painful or difficult, while they have not gone away, are no longer dominating my life. I don’t want to deny that life has more of an element of uncertainty than ever right now, because I think that’s the most beautiful part about this peace from God.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

The verses above provide two commands and a resulting promise. Don’t be anxious; instead, bring everything to God in prayer. If you do these things, you will experience this protective peace that passes understanding, which can only happen as you surrender those concerns to God.

The Message version provides a beautiful commentary on these verses:

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”

God’s peace is not related to a calm in our circumstances. Peace does not occur when life slows down or eases up, but rather when things are hard and nothing about our circumstances are easy. That’s why it surpasses understanding.

Jesus spoke of this. He told his disciples that he was giving them peace but in the same breath warned them of difficulties ahead.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. –John 16:33

There’s something different about the peace that Jesus offers, something that is unlike what the world might expect.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. –John 14:27

Spurgeon wrote that in this peace, our “faith goes further than understanding, and the peace which the Christian enjoys is one which the worldling can not comprehend, and can not himself attain.” He illustrates the effects of this peace by writing:

When you have once felt it, when you can stand calm amid the bewildering cry, confident of victory, when you can sing in the midst of the storm, when you can smile when surrounded by adversity, and can trust your God, be your way never so rough, never so stormy; when you can always repose confidence in the wisdom and goodness of Jehovah, then it is you will have “the peace of God which passeth all understanding.”

In my life, this peace has transformed the way I am walking through those days, as I approach them with surrender and gratitude. I am finding security as I let go of my concerns, looking not for resolution but instead for the presence of Christ. God’s goodness plays out not in prosperity but in his presence and his plans, which I trust are greater than my own.

I truly believe that the peace that God gives is most beautifully portrayed in our dark or difficult days, and in that sense, I am grateful to live in the tension of unresolved yet secure and guarded by Christ.

why I stopped asking why

I’ve stopped asking why.

I used to cling to purpose, to reasons, to analysis and determination that I would do all I was supposed to during an unexpected season that I saw as a detour I simply needed to get around. I was strategic and open to hearing from the Lord but also determined to figure out the why on my own.

But life rarely goes the way we expect it to. After a job loss we weren’t prepared for then numerous job changes for both me and Eric, after a planned move to Louisville for seminary that never happened, after support raising and the decision to end support raising and the 3.5 year job that he never wanted to last more than a year and a move to my hometown and house buying attempts that fell through and both of us struggling to find boundaries with work and another deferred seminary enrollment, not to mention 2.5 years of infertility (and continuing)–I’ve learned that there’s not always a clear why, at least not one that I should be building my life upon.

I still want the why. I would love for God to give me a tangible answer: “This is what you are supposed to do since you don’t have kids yet.” I wanted the why throughout all of the unexpected twists and turns in our journey. If I could just know what I need to learn or how I should spend my time, I could perhaps be more content with my detour, right? I could refocus my eyes from where I wanted to be to what I need to do so that I can eventually get where I want to be.

But I can also see how I am looking to a tangible purpose to be an identity or a task to conquer so that I can move forward in my life. I find myself looking for that reason instead of looking for God in the middle of the dark.

I’ve been reading W. Philip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, and through the course of the book my view of God and his care for us has been expanded by recognizing the helplessness and the stupidity of sheep. The humbling descriptions of how sheep act and the attention they require has made me realize the depth of my need for God.

As Keller comments on each part of Psalm 23 and how it relates to his past experience with sheep-herding, I was struck by his description of “He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” He discusses the need for a shepherd to keep his sheep on the move, preventing their wearing out the same paths, both for the sake of the land and the sake of the sheep’s health. Keller then discusses how followers of Christ, instead of trying to make their own paths and go their own way, can move forward onto new ground with God.

Instead of finding fault with life and always asking “Why?” I am willing to accept every circumstance of life in an attitude of gratitude.

Human beings, being what they are, somehow feel entitled to question the reasons for everything that happens to them. In many instances life itself becomes a continuous criticism and dissection of one’s circumstances and acquaintances.

I’ve been pondering how that attitude of gratitude would change my daily life, how I might be able to rest in that perspective instead of the exhausting pursuit of a knowable reason for everything. While I do believe that God has a purpose for each part of our lives, a tapestry woven together to make us more like him and to bring glory to his name, I no longer think it’s my objective to discover the why for every single thing.

In fact, His Word tells us that his ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). We won’t always understand what He is doing, at least not in the moment or perhaps even in our lifetime. When Job asked God what fault he found with him (Job 31), God’s response was not to give an explanation, but to give Job a bigger view of Himself (Job 38-41). Job’s then admits, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:2-3).

We are but sheep. Our job is not to be the shepherd, or even the Shepherd’s assistant, but to follow the Shepherd where He leads us, trusting His knowledge and His plotted out paths for our nourishment.

But if one really believes his affairs are in God’s hands, every event, no matter whether joyous or tragic, will be taken as part of God’s plan. To know beyond doubt that He does all for our welfare is to be led into a wide area of peace and quietness and strength for every situation. –Keller

He might choose to give us a clear purpose, calling us to something specific or creating circumstances that allow for focused growth. But even if He doesn’t, He is a good shepherd (John 10). As I find rest in who He is, I am less dependent on knowing a reason why and instead seeking to know Him. I am building my life upon Him, as He is the greatest purpose in any season I encounter.

How to Really Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice

I was in a bad mood. I knew it, and I knew why. But instead of dealing with it the way I knew I should (probably going on a walk and listening to a podcast, or journaling and praying to process my feelings), I grouchily laid on the couch, sighed, and pulled out my phone.

I knew better.

We’ve probably almost all been there–scrolling through social media feeds, feeling more discouraged and left out with each swipe, knowing that this addiction to see the next entry is harmful to our hearts yet being unable to put the device down.

And of course, the source of my pain, the thing I was trying to forget, was everywhere my fingers were tapping. I felt almost like a hypocrite, “liking” all of the photos of my friends with a sleeping baby on their chest, or the playgroups in the park, or the latest baby bump update.

Social media’s thorn is the feeling of being left out, and on this day, it wasn’t simply that I was left out of a birthday party or a movie night; I felt left out of life.

I certainly knew it wasn’t my friends’ fault that my husband and I were walking through infertility and had been unable to conceive, but I found myself twisting my personal sadness into a bitterness against those for whom “it had all worked out.” Those with the seemingly perfect stories, the sweet moments of surprise, never knowing the need to calculate and plan and test. And I didn’t want to be happy for them.

You would think it would be easy to live out “rejoice with those who rejoice”; who doesn’t want to experience joy? But when pain is deep and prolonged in your own life, it becomes increasingly more difficult to celebrate with others when you still have unanswered hopes.

When you’re standing up as a bridesmaid for the umpteenth time, no ring on your own finger.

When you’re looking for a new job–again–and eyeing the stability someone else seems to have attained.

Or when your arms and spare bedrooms remain empty while your friends look for bigger houses for their growing family.

I sometimes think it would be easier to slowly distance myself from those happy people, hurting because their joy is a reminder of my own lack. In fact, I sense that expectation from them when they share joyful news with me. It’s coated in an apology of sorts, a hesitation in which they are afraid to cause me pain.

I appreciate their awareness of my own struggle; one of the sweet parts of friendship is feeling known by someone else, into the deeper parts of you. But the question of how to move forward, how to keep investing in this friendship that all of a sudden presents this chasm, is always the follow up to someone’s happy news and approaching life change. Our lives will look different from here, and the question is whether or not I can handle that.

After being confronted with this unspoken question several times, I realized I would need to shift my thinking. Otherwise, I wasn’t sure how to maintain friendships when I–and they–can’t plan for much of what happens next in our lives.

Our seasons of life play out in unpredictable patterns with no scientific bearing of producing specific results if you follow steps one, two, and three. If you are looking at things that way, your thoughts will look something like this: It’s not fair! We went to the same school and took all of the same classes, yet she got into grad school and I didn’t. Or How come he’s up for a promotion while I’ve been working my tail off with no recognition? Or There must be something wrong with me, since I have lost count of how many weddings I have attended but none of my own relationships ever work out.

Friendship can’t be about trying to keep up with each other. At its core, I think friendship should be about being on the same team.

When I see my friend as a teammate of sorts, her joy doesn’t seem like an imposition against me. When someone shares with me that they are rejoicing, my first response doesn’t have to be a comparison to how my life is matching up to theirs. When I hold close to a friend unselfishly, not just thinking about my hopes for my life but their hopes for their life, it becomes less about what I can gain and more about how I can encourage and celebrate because I love them. Just as I want to be known deeply, so do they, and being able to share in their happiness is as important to them as their willingness to share in my grief is to me.

Friendship works best when we are for each other, and that mindset is the key to being able to rejoice with those who rejoice–even if you yourself are not rejoicing in your own life.

 

This article was originally published on Upwrite Magazine’s website, which is no longer available.  

discovering the beauty of zion

I still remember the chill of the morning air, my fleece zipped up tightly as I walked through campus toward Old Main Lawn. I prayed as I walked, pretending that Jesus was walking alongside me and I was in conversation with him. When I arrived at the bench that faced my favorite climbing tree, I set down my backpack and pulled out my Bible, my breaths deep due to cold air in my lungs and in wonder of the low fog that settled over the lawn.

I loved having a “date” with the Lord before the hustle of the day began. Campus was silent at 7 a.m., and in the stillness my heart was able to rest in his presence.

I experienced a similar feeling on my weekends “off” while I worked at summer camp in high school and college. Sunday afternoons were a time most of my friends would nap, resting before the next week of swimming and fishing and dancing and aggie-mo softball. I’ve never been very good at napping unless I am sick, so I would use that time to find shade at the Big Lake boat dock or on the Vespers benches overlooking the ranch. An enchanting quiet settled over the camp on the weekends, and my journal pages turned as I processed all that the Lord was teaching me through my ministry with these kids. While sitting on the dock, hands resting behind me on the well-worn wood, toes in the water, crickets humming in the tall grass, I met with God.

Some of my favorite afternoons during the week were when ranch activity was forced to a stop by summer rain. The coziest place was in my cabin perching on my bed, tarps rolled up to let in sounds through screen windows. There was nothing quite like extended rest time due to rain delays, my campers all napping or quietly reading in their bunks, and my heart basking in the presence of God that met me right on that squeaky spring bed frame.

For Israel, the place that stirred to mind their covenant relationship with God was Zion. This word is used frequently in Scripture to denote Jerusalem broadly, but specifically the “city of David,” a stronghold David first captured from the Jebusites at the start of his reign. It’s also where David brought the Ark of the Covenant until his son Solomon built the temple. It can refer to “the place, the forms, and the assemblies of Israelite worship” (Nave’s Topical Bible Concordance). Then, in the New Testament, Zion refers to the heavenly Jerusalem we as believers are anticipating.

Psalm 48 is a praise psalm which is prompted by a reflection on Zion. Willem A. VanGemeren comments, “The godly had a special feeling about Jerusalem that is beautifully and sensitively expressed in this psalm. They looked on the city, mountain, and temple as symbols of God’s presence with his people.” From describing the beauty of this place to its fearful effect on enemies, Zion produces praise from God’s people. Verse 8 states, “Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.”

I love VanGemeren’s thoughts on this verse:

The godly “meditate” on God’s mighty acts (v.9). Their meditation was more than a devotional reading. They took comfort in, rejoiced in, and made offerings in gratitude to the revelation of God’s perfections. It was a God-given visual aid, encouraging them to imagine and to reflect on the long history of God’s involvement with Israel and of the evidences of his “unfailing love” (hesed).

However, we don’t always remember this or feel in awe of it. We feel alone or lacking in God’s touch. We don’t necessarily have the temple as a “visual aid” to direct our thoughts to God. How do we cultivate that praise daily, in our own lives? The Israelites lived with a constant visible reminder of God’s presence, but how can we remember his presence dwelling with us?

Psalm 48:12-14 commands the people, “Walk about Zion, go around her, count her towers, consider well her ramparts, view her citadels, that you may tell of them to the next generation. For this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.” I have been considering what I can do to actively remind myself of God’s glory in the way that the Israelites could walk around the city and the temple.

Dr. Thomas Constable notes that “[a]ncient peoples connected the glory of a god with the place where he dwelt.” How incredible, then, to know that God’s presence is with us always! As believers on this side of the cross, his Holy Spirit dwells with us, empowering us and changing us (Romans 8:9-11).

You may not find me on the Big Lake dock these days (though I would love to return!), but I have new places in my grown up life, simple spots like my back porch, that help me focus on meeting God and meditating on his beauty. Sometimes that desire is triggered by a cup of coffee in my favorite mug or a new journal instead of a specific place. Sometimes it’s the worship song I have had on repeat because it so perfectly describes the state of my heart. I am learning to fill my days with little things that remind me of God’s presence dwelling with me and my surrender to his guidance and his rule, my version of walking around the citadels and admiring the ramparts.

The glory of Zion is nothing less than the adoration of God-with-us (Immanuel). The wonder of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ is anticipated in the wonder of God’s presence among his people in the OT. The Incarnation is a mystery, but the revelation of God in human form should never take away from the mystery of God’s presence and beneficent rule (48:1-3) in the OT. –VanGemeren

Psalm 48 prompts us to meditate on God’s praise and glory even as tangible things of this world remind us of his presence dwelling with us. Walk around a local park, listen to worship music while running errands, find a place that draws your heart to rest in him. “As your name, O God, so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with righteousness” (Psalm 48:10).

Study the Word (part one): It’s More Than a Love Letter

I’m a strong believer in the accessibility of Scripture, that God’s Word can speak to anyone. Because we have the Holy Spirit, Who guides us into truth (John 16), we don’t need fancy commentaries or well-designed devotional books to help us know what the Bible is saying.

I’ve been working on a series of blog posts to share more about what I have personally learned to help me study the Bible. This topic of discussion comes up often with others, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers yet (or ever will), but I want to share some things that have significantly impacted my relationship with the Word and thus my spiritual growth.

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A Bible teacher in high school used to remind us over and over that “the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible.” I am pretty sure it was a fill-in-the-blank question on every single test that semester. He meant that the Bible is self-sustaining. When we don’t understand a passage, we should search Scripture to find other passages that support it and help us digest it more fully.

As someone who loves to learn and study, though, I do appreciate being able to use those sorts of tools to give me a deeper understanding, whether it’s through knowing the historical context or the meaning in the original language or the way it connects to another passage in a different part of the Bible that I never would have recognized on my own. Various Bible studies have encouraged me and helped me learn through what God has taught someone else. The Bible has unending layers, of a sort, and tools help us go deeper and deeper within those layers of learning and interpretation.

But my first step in trying to understanding a passage is not to go to someone else’s words. It’s to spend time digging in to the passage itself, praying that the Lord would reveal truth to my heart.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:12-13)

There are a lot of people who don’t feel confident in being able to open the Bible and gain what God has for them. And often, when I talk to those who feel they are in a dry season with God, their explanation is that they try to read the Bible but can’t get anything out of it right now.

I have been there too. But I knew that the Bible was living and active (Hebrews 4:12), so there was no way I could blame the problem on the Word having gone stale; rather, it had to be something to do with me.

As an aside, we do often go through what some refer to as a “desert” season in our spiritual life, and sometimes this is a place where God chooses to leave us in order to strengthen our faith. It’s not always a result of our sin or our attitude. However, what I am talking about is a boredom or an apathy toward the Word because it doesn’t seem to be doing anything in your life, so you give up trying to read it.

Then, through a combination of things I was reading and people I was talking to, I realized that my problem was my perspective when I went in to read the Bible. I was looking for what it told me for my life.

There seems to be a phenomenon, especially within middle school and high school groups, that attempts to convince pre-teens and teens how fun it is to read the Bible. The motive is good – help them desire to get into the Word! But the reason I most often heard growing up is that the Bible is a love letter from God to you, and who doesn’t want to read a love letter??

I didn’t have a boyfriend in high school, and my crushes never liked me back, so I found comfort in the fact that Someone would write me a love letter, and Someone would care for me just as I am. After disappointing Friday nights and dashed Valentines’ Day hopes and lonely high school formals, I would retreat back to my room with my journal and write to Jesus, asking Him to fill that void in my life.

Now this is a tangent, so don’t get lost, but I am not totally bashing this concept. It really helped me grow through singleness to recognize that Jesus was the One Who could fulfill me, and it was only as I accepted this and rested in Him that I was ready to meet Eric. A relationship is made up of two broken people, and as wonderful as my husband is, he’s not perfect, and he doesn’t complete me or satisfy me the way Christ can. And Eric has to live in that place, too, where his ultimate desire is for Christ.

But back to the Bible being a love letter –
Eric writes me love letters from time to time. I married a sappy man who knows how to make me feel loved, albeit a little awkward in a giddy way, by writing pretty words and telling me how much he loves me.

And the thing is, those letters are all about me. About how much he loves me and how beautiful he thinks I am and how much it means to him when I serve him in different ways. He praises me and makes me feel good about myself, makes me feel valued and loved.

And while God does love us, and while He did pay the ultimate sacrifice because He wants us to share in eternity with Him, I’m not sure that the Bible is a love letter to us because the Bible is not about us. And when we are looking for ourselves constantly in Scripture, we will often come up dry and confused, because we can’t find ourselves on every page.

I get why youth pastors and other leaders communicate this to those kids. At that age, you are so self-centered. I know I was! All that mattered was whether or not my friends were inviting me to sleepovers, or how I did on my Algebra test (and if it was the top grade in the class), or what people thought about me. The world ended after high school, so of course every little thing was a life and death matter! And when you tell someone that there is a love letter waiting for them, of course they are going to want to read it, because who doesn’t want to be praised and adored? Kids need to know that the Bible is relevant to their lives, and this is a great analogy to help them dive in.

But that can then set us into a pattern for the rest of our lives as we keep looking for how the Bible serves us and our desire to be affirmed. The Bible is about God, first and foremost. It has implications for our lives, and it talks about how we should live, but all of that is in light of Who God is. And I think if we take the time to recognize Who God is, we will find that we experience the depth of His love even more.

so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith–that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:17-21)

We will come away discouraged from reading our Bibles, and especially from studying the parts that are more difficult, if we are only looking for the application–“What does this mean for my life?” I believe that the first thing to look for in Scripture is what it says about God and Who He is. Look for what the passage says about His character and His actions. What is true about God?

For the junior high Bible curriculum I taught this past school year, students learned to look at the Bible as one story with the plot outline of Creation, Fall, Redemption. The Creation and the Fall happen within the first couple of chapters–and the rest of the Bible is God’s process and fulfillment of his promise of redeeming the world, ultimately through His Son, then through His Spirit working through us to share the Gospel with others and to bring Him glory.

He is on every page of Scripture, and as we learn to look for Him in everything we read, we will see how much he loves us, and we will grow more deeply in our knowledge of him, our love for him, and our relationship with him.

To read more in this series, here are the links for the following posts.
Part Two: Meet My New Teacher, Sherlock Holmes.

speaking the truth to your emotions

When given the choice between beach or mountains, I’ve always been a mountains girl­—especially this time of year, when I begin to reflect on my summers spent in Juneau, Alaska with Cru on summer mission projects. The distinct smell of the air, the soft mossy ground beneath my hiking boots, the quiet coolness of the summit, the ways the world begins to make sense to me in the context of the trail and the journey.

However, this morning, I’ve been thinking about the beach. Maybe it’s because friends have been talking about their upcoming trips, or maybe because I just finished the couple of junior high Bible classes I teach and I am eager to simply sit and rest, but the taste of salt and the rocking of the waves have been sounding so appealing lately.

As school ends and my ministry with Cru shifts in light of a summer role, I am (per usual) reflective on the past semester and how the Lord has been at work in my life, and I actually think the beach is a good picture of the ups and downs I’ve experienced the past several months.

Sometimes, we feel like we have a handle on our lives. We are in a good rhythm and are ready to tackle the day-to-day in front of us. We enjoy a season of rest and routine in a really sweet way, like the gentle lapping of the waves against your ankles, burying toes in the sand.

Sooner or later, though life comes at us, the wind and the rain stirring the seas. Huge waves break over our heads, lungs gasping for air and mind searching for which way is up. When things rage out of control, or when a fog sets in concerning decisions and next steps, I personally struggle to figure out exactly how I am feeling about a situation–and whether or not these feelings are the truth.

People typically have one of two responses when it comes to their feelings. Some are ruled by them, admitted feelers who navigate life through their emotional responses. Others are reasoners who seek to overcome their emotions with logic and fact. As an adult, I have recognized myself as falling closer to the reasoning end of the spectrum.

I cried a lot as a child, wrestling with friends hurting my feelings or discouragement in not accomplishing all I wanted (such as making a 91 instead of a 100 on test or losing a basketball game), so I grew up being taught to slow my emotional responses and think rationally about things. While I couldn’t necessarily control emotional responses, I could identify truth in the middle of those emotional responses, and that should keep me from irrational feelings.

However, this took a turn of over-correction, and I began to view my emotions themselves as bad. If they weren’t supposed to control me, if truth was my guide, then my emotions should line up with truth. If I was afraid, I just needed to tell myself to not be afraid, and it should click with my emotional responses so that I wasn’t afraid anymore. Or if I truly believed that God was sovereign, I would not be so devastated in my disappointments.

Yet I found that, as much Scripture as I quoted, or as many times I repeated truth about how I should feel, I never could get rid of what I thought were false feelings. I couldn’t stop feeling sad, even though I was fully trusting in the Lord and in his good plan for my life.

Over the past couple of years, I have begun to understand that there is value in both my emotions and in the truth, and writers wrestling in the Psalms have helped me see how to balance the two.

David never denies that he is upset. He recognizes his despair, then he reminds himself of where his salvation lies.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” –Psalm 42:5-6a

“My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me… But I call to God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” –Psalm 55:4-5, 16-17

“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” –Psalm 56:3-4

Don’t deny that your feelings exist—don’t try to wish them away or think that they should be different than they actually are.

The fact that we experience fear or discouragement or sadness does not necessarily mean that we aren’t trusting God, and I think this was my perspective for a long time. God created everything about us, including our emotions, and throughout Scripture we see people who communicate everything from fear (like David) to confused anger (Job) to grief (Hannah) to doubt (Peter and Thomas). The Lord never chides them for these emotions, but rather, what they do with them. Thomas allowed his doubt to keep him from celebrating Christ’s resurrection. Job’s confusion and anger caused him to justify himself and question God’s care in his life. However, Hannah’s grief brought her to her knees, begging the Lord to hear her request for a child.

So how do we handle our emotions, especially in the difficult seasons of life when we can easily feel overwhelmed?

Instead of allowing my emotions to define my circumstances, I have tried to set a pattern of identifying my emotions and looking to them for information. If I am all of a sudden on the verge of tears, I know I need to stop and reflect on what’s going on in my heart. If I am frustrated at Eric but don’t know why, I need to look at not just what he has done but my own expectations and how I was looking to him to meet my needs.

Then, after recognizing those emotions, I am beginning to speak truth to them in the same way David did, reminding myself that I can rest in the Lord, clinging to Him in the midst of the storm.

“Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” –Psalm 55:22

As I give validity to my emotions, I am encouraged by how they actually draw me closer to the Lord. I can experience his comfort if I recognize my need to be comforted (2 Corinthians 1:4). I see his ability to calm the storm when I identify that there is a storm that needs to be calmed (Mark 4). I allow him to be the one who meets my needs and desires when I invite him in to my discontentment (Psalm 145:16).

Bethany (Dillon) Barnard recently came out with a new album, and in the song “Awake My Soul and Sing” she declares, “My feelings aren’t the truth / and when it comes in view / worship will arise.” Ultimately, as we speak truth to our emotions, I think our ability to respond with worship during troubled times brings God more glory than if we were simply praising him because all was well.

Through the waves, whether gentle or fierce, may you experience God’s loving hand in your life. He is steady and constant despite the way life ebbs and flows around us.

P.S. For further personal study, read Psalm 77 and explore Asaph’s emotions as well as the ways he reminds himself of God’s character in the middle of his distress.

what the dark develops

Spring weather has been in Arkansas for a while now, as our winter was extremely mild and I’ve been wearing short sleeves since February. However, it’s been in the past few weeks that the world has turned lush and green. Trees branches blow slow motion in the wind, heavy with their leaves, and grass is demanding that it be mowed once a week or it threatens to take over the house.

We’ve also seen a lot of rain. And not just rain, but downpours. Flash flood warnings and constantly muddy dog paws and mulch-washing-away type of rain. And while this means that many days are dark skies and puddle-soaked feet, it has also resulted in that abundance of growth and new life.

The contrast of the water-heavy clouds and the verdant fields has been a poignant spiritual picture as I have considered what it means to live in this broken and beautiful world. God uses those clouds hiding the sun to bring up new life, and he has been reminding my heart that he uses the darker seasons to develop new life in my soul.

There’s always a contrasting shade present in our sunny world, a dark shadow to remind us that sin taints it all. And I believe that, when we recognize the disappointments and unmet desires instead of hiding or trying to “get over” them, we become more aware of our spiritual reality. In this way, infertility has been a sanctifying grace in my life.

Infertility has helped me more fully understand the Christian life, here on this earth and the hope we have for the future.

Romans 8:18-25 dives into a comparison of present sufferings and future glory–or, rather, it says they aren’t even worth being compared. Paul acknowledges the frustration that creation experiences, and even more so ourselves, in the waiting for the coming redemption. The relief from bondage is not something that can be achieved by us; it’s based on the coming of Christ.

As Paul personifies creation as being subjected to futility, commentators Sanday and Headlam note that this description “is appropriately used of the disappointing character of present existence, which nowhere reaches the perfection of which it is capable.” Commentator Everett F. Harrison says that the creation is “being pictured as not willingly enduring the subjection yet having hope for something better, i.e., liberation from its ‘bondage to decay.’”

The fact that we experience grief and loss is an affirmation of this idea that life is not “reaching the perfection of which it is capable.” There’s something in us that seems to say, This just doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t there be something better? With infertility specifically, I see that my body isn’t working the way it was designed to. For friends in the wait for adoption, it doesn’t make sense that something so needed, something good, something that paints such a unique picture of our relationship with God, can be a heart-breaking, difficult, unending process. Any who have experienced miscarriage or infant loss understand that something is terribly, terribly wrong with the way things unfolded.

Suffering affects us all in different ways, none worth comparing with another to see which is worse. Pain is pain, no matter your circumstances, and for each person, it’s an evidence that we live in a fallen world.

In this passage, Paul personifies this suffering, this futility in our world, as a woman in labor, which evokes a depth to the suffering. The beauty of this metaphor is that the pain and the groaning are producing something that will be worth it. The pain is inescapable, but the expectation of what’s coming is the motivation for the woman in labor to not give up–and this then produces hope in the midst of despair.

“For in this hope we were saved. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24-25)

“As [Paul] sees the dark tunnel of death ahead of him, he is confident that beyond it the road leads on to his destination, though it remains unseen.” –Everett F. Harrison

This passage in Romans connects to Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, which also echoes that the present sufferings are not able to be compared to an “eternal weight of glory.”

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

In regard to this passage, commentator Murray J. Harris states, “Matching the progressive weakening of [Paul’s] physical powers was the daily renewal of his spiritual powers. It was as though the more he expended himself for the gospel’s sake, the greater his spiritual resilience.”

Infertility has brought a new dimension to my relationship with God. The longer I walk through it, the deeper my dependence on God. Intimacy has formed when things are hard, and my need for hope is even more evident when things feel like they are falling apart.

This ongoing struggle has become a “normal” in my life. Some days this means that it’s hard to think about hope, and it seems like it will never end. But other days, it means that I have settled into a rest despite uncertainty, a confidence that this broken world is not all there is. My eyes are more quick to fix on a coming redemption, a hope for a Savior who will make all things right.

Because we have struggled to start a family, I have a deeper understanding of the tension we all live in, of expectation, of the already and the not yet, of God’s presence with us but not in its fullest form. I am continually reminded of my need for God in a situation I can’t control and must trust to his hand. And I am forced to set my hope in him as I wait with patience for the fulfillment not just of my desires, but of the whole world’s groaning.

As Mother’s Day approaches, for those with a similar story, or as you consider any holiday or mark in time that reminds you of your own loss, I pray that you will find rest in his sovereignty and comfort in his presence, even in the midst of suffering–trusting that your suffering is producing a hope toward eternity. May you more deeply understand the spiritual reality we live in as you walk through a beautifully broken world.

Last year, I wrote a piece entitled “When Mother’s Day Is Painful,” and I would love for you to share it with anyone you know who might be anticipating next Sunday with a little bit of hesitation or hurt.